Before, during and after: The Black Lives Matter Flag petition, aftermath

Analicia Haynes and Logan Raschke

*Editor’s Note: This story documents what happened with the petition to raise the Black Lives Matter Flag on campus during African-American Heritage Month and the decision that was made in the end. In Friday’s edition of The Daily Eastern News we will publish another story that documents what the university and Student Senate plans to do moving forward and how the administration plans to ensure the safety of black students on campus.

It started with a petition for a flag.

In August 2018 a petition to raise the Black Lives Matter Flag on campus came to fruition. The flag was to be raised underneath the American flag in the South Quad during African-American Heritage Month.

Six months have since passed and as African-American Heritage Month reaches its final day, there is no flag and there are no alternatives established in place of that flag.

But there is a divided campus, a lot of confusion and a lot of tears that remain.

When the Wheels started turning

Morgan Colvin, a junior political science major, and Keshyra Bluminberg, a junior English secondary education major, created the petition for the Black Lives Matter Flag because they said it was important to give representation for African-American Heritage Month.

Colvin said it would also be a way to know that the university stands with its students, especially African-American students.

Bluminberg said for the two of them, the Black Lives Matter Flag was more than just a flag; it was a symbol.

“It would coincide with the African-American Heritage Month events and the flag would be a reminder … to just remember what you learned,” Bluminberg said.

The petition called for 2,500 signatures and as of Wednesday night, 624 signed.

The petition did not go before the Student Senate until October 2018.

Colvin said it took that long because she felt the Senate did not take them seriously until the petition started to gain traction.

“…Then (Eastern President David Glassman) got word of it and that’s when (the Senate) started to take it seriously and that’s when I think Student Senate said, ‘OK, we really need to start doing something with (the petition),’” Colvin said.

Executive Vice President Zac Cohen said when Colvin brought the petition to him, the Student Senate did not have quorum and they had to appoint senators, assign committee chairs and assign senators to committees.

Cohen was the acting speaker of the senate for the fall semester and he said since that was the case, he wanted to do things right by establishing a committee on student affairs so it could look at the petition and work with Colvin and Bluminberg to eventually bring the petition to the Senate floor in the form of a bill.

When the petition did make it to the Senate, it fell on Alicia Matusiak, the vice president of student affairs.

Then, Colvin said she and Bluminberg met with Eastern President David Glassman in November 2018.

The Student Senate Executive Board members meet with Glassman and Lynette Drake, the vice president of student affairs, every month and when Glassman found out about the petition, he said he wanted the Student Senate’s thoughts.

Glassman said he decided since this was a student led petition, it was important for the student governing body to provide feedback and, therefore, offer a recommendation based on what the student body thought.

“The ultimate decision was mine,” Glassman said. “Before I made a decision on whether or not to approve or not approve the request (for the flag), I wanted to see what the Student Senate had to say.”

During Senate Meetings

During an Oct. 17 meeting, Cohen said the topic of the Black Lives Matter Flag would be brought to the Senate whenever the student affairs committee felt it was ready to.

At the same meeting he said the committee or a senator would have to bring a resolution to the Senate stating the current situation and include whether or not the it was in support of the flag.

Then, he said that resolution would come to Senate and senators would have the opportunity to ask those who created the petition questions before the bill is tabled for a week.

Following that, Cohen said the Senate would have a discussion about it at the next meeting and then take a vote.

He said at the Oct. 17 meeting that he was not sure what happens once the resolution leaves the Student Senate, but he said the Senate does not have a final say on the matter.

At an Oct. 24 meeting, Matusiak apologized to the Senate because the process of creating a resolution for the flag was taking longer than expected.

She said she was doing her “due diligence” to make sure she had enough information, met with the appropriate people and looked at the big picture before bringing a resolution to the Senate during the meeting.

She said she wanted to talk to as many sources as possible who have knowledge on the topic, get as many opinions as possible to make sure the senate makes an educated vote and see senators talk to as many students as possible.

This was to ensure that the student senators would not vote based on their own opinions but instead take into consideration what the student body wanted, she said at the meeting.

Matusiak said ultimately the Student Senate wants the campus to be inclusive and show diversity while making sure the campus remains safe and considers everyone’s best interest.

She said there was only so much the Student Senate could do, and what they can do is recommend whether or not the Senate offers their support for the flag based on what the best interest of the student body is.

Matusiak also said she and other senators were looking to see if there were other ways of showing diversity and inclusiveness.

Then on Oct. 31 Colvin and Bluminberg came before the Senate and answered questions surrounding the flag.

Questions included how counter-protests would be handled, whether or not the Charleston community should be taken into consideration and campus safety.

At that meeting Colvin and Bluminberg said they did understand that the final decision was up to the administration but also said a lot of people on campus wanted the flag.

They asked senators to be the voice for their constituents.

Matusiak said at the Oct. 31 meeting that she was continuing to do her “due diligence” before her committee came up with a resolution.

She reminded senators to reach out to students in classrooms and on campus and ask them questions such as, “Will this create controversy on campus,” “Does this flag represent African-American Heritage Month” and “How can we ensure the safety of all students?”

Colvin said she and Bluminberg were aware of the bill process and said she knew there was something wrong with the way the petition was processed through the Senate.

She referred to the approval of the purchase of the Panther Statue and how that took a shorter period of time to approve and discuss compared to the petition.

“(The delay) just shows what Student Senate is about and what EIU is about. It’s all about how we look and black people are only here for the pictures; we’re only here just so other black kids come here and spend more money and go into debt. That’s why we’re here,” Colvin said.

But, she said this process is not shocking because it is something black people face everyday.

The Senate Resolution

On Dec. 5 the Senate voted to make a decision to create a list of alternatives instead of raising the Black Lives Matter Flag in the South Quad during African-American Heritage Month.

The resolution they approved also called for the creation of a special committee to help come up with these alternatives.

During the Dec. 5 meeting the Senate agreed that the committee was supposed to be created by Jan. 31, 2019.

It was not.

Instead, during a Feb. 20 meeting, Sophia Sarver, a graduate assistant for the Student Life Office, said the alternatives to the Black Lives Matter Flag would not be decided until the “Diversity Action Council” was established.

She said she and Ceci Brinker, the director of student life and advisor for the Student Senate, were focusing on creating this council so it is positive and inclusive.

She said the Diversity Action Council will likely “collaborate” with Student Senate in deciding alternatives to flying the Black Lives Matter Flag during African-American Heritage Month.

Cohen said the last time the Diversity Action Council was active was either in 2012 or 2013, and it has always been run through the Student Life Office with Brinker and the other graduate assistants coordinating it.

Cohen said Brinker told him that the Council was effective, as it “focused on being inclusive and having a good, diverse group of members.”

He said no one from the executive branch of Student Senate or any other senators, to his knowledge, contacted Colvin and Bluminberg about the decision to delegate creating flag alternatives to the Diversity Action Council.

Gordon said she “personally reached out” to Colvin and Bluminberg but never received a response back.

Colvin and Bluminberg said they never heard from the Student Senate after the decision to create alternatives and they never were invited to join a committee to create the alternatives.

The Final Decision

Glassman said there were multiple reasons why the administration decided not to fly the flag, but the primary reason was the precedent it would set.

“It would start a precedent and the precedent would be that there could be other requests for flying flags for different causes being placed on the American flag pole,” Glassman said. “We have not done that in the past and I know that the extremes have been talked about, well, if you let this happen would you let XYZ—I’m not going to say what. I’m saying ‘no, that’s easy, you’re not going to do that here’ … but I’m saying ‘no, what about the ones that are close in causes (to the Black Lives Matter Movement)?’”

He said then the issue becomes an issue of freedom of speech.

“For me, I felt we can express our support for diversity and for our students of color by having the Black Lives Matter flag and its symbol in our lectures, on our camps, on ourselves, but just not on the American flagpole,” Glassman said.

Glassman said the concern of how the Charleston community would respond was not a true factor for him, and he said that really was not the issue.

“I really wasn’t worried that the community would react in a divisive manner. You may always find people that are not approving of things that you do, whether it’s this or something else that takes place on campus. It was much more the idea of the precedent and the free speech issue,” Glassman said.

Before the Senate started discussing the flag, Glassman said he did not start the process with a decision in mind and instead wanted to know what the thoughts of the student body were.

“I found out about (the Senate resolution) basically from the reporting … and certainly (the Student Senate) do not make any determination whether (the administration) does something or not. It was simply a recommendation,” Glassman said. “I thought it was important to let the student governing body let me know their thoughts, and so I waited for that.”

Glassman said after the Senate approved its resolution, he talked it over with the President’s Council and came to the decision that the university was not going to support having the Black Lives Matter Flag fly on the same flag pole as the American flag.

However, he said he told Colvin and Bluminberg that the university did support their activities and he suggested that they might want to have Black Lives Matter flags placed in the ground in the South Quad where they wanted to do their symbolic gestures.

He also said he told Colvin and Bluminberg that the petition will cause more good in having hard discussions pertaining to race, racism and privilege on campus than actually the flag itself being on the flag pole.

The Aftermath

At the Dec. 5 meeting Senators argued that the flag would create a division among the student body that would lead to negative consequences.

And during an interview with the executive board on Feb. 20, Matusiak said Drake’s biggest concern with regard to flying the Black Lives Matter Flag was the safety of students.

Colvin said it still feels like black students are being punished, though, because people are racist.

She said the reason why people say the flag is divisive is not because of what it stands for, but it is because there are people in the Charleston community who will come to campus and do something horrible.

“That’s the reality we live in where people walk onto campuses and they shoot people because of things they don’t agree with being said on campuses,” Colvin said.

Colvin and Bluminberg said there would be retaliation from the community even though they agree that regardless, the community should not have been considered in the decision because it was a campus discussion.

Colvin said, with tears running down her face, that all they wanted was representation and Bluminberg said all they learned from the situation was that black lives do not matter on campus.

They said while some of the senators did reach out to the black community, such as the Black Student Union, the NAACP and the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities on campus, they felt that others did not.

They said they did not go the extra mile to educate themselves more or talk to black students.

“If you hear that there is a discussion about the inequality of black people and you are sitting next to a black person, just ask them and see how they feel about the flag,” Colvin said. “Though we might not agree, but it’s for the fact that you’re showing that their black life matters.”

However, they said race is an uncomfortable topic to talk about and is only aided by individuals’ “irrational fear” of black people, as Bluminberg puts it.

“They don’t want to go up to (black people) and ask them a question out of fear that their stereotypical thoughts will come true,” Bluminberg said.

After Student Senate voted down the Black Lives Matter Flag, people on and off campus began expressing that they were upset and claiming the senate did not care about black lives, something Tarve’a Durant, the current speaker of the Senate, said was “hurtful.”

Colvin and Bluminberg said while they were not surprised, it was still painful when they could not fly the flag because they felt hopeless.

Glassman said he had no idea people were blaming the Student Senate for its decision to recommend alternatives.

“It wasn’t their responsibility. It’s my responsibility to make the decisions for this university. If anybody is disappointed that the administration chose to not fly the (Black Lives Matter Flag) on the American flagpole it should be solely directed to me,” Glassman said.

But Glassman said he does not think letting the Student Senate draft a resolution was the wrong thing to do.

“This was an issue that was generated from students and the student body and we have a governmental body on campus, so I thought that was a good place to suggest that our students who were doing the petition to speak to,” Glassman said. “I certainly was not trying to lay my responsibility onto another group nor am I pleased to hear that they may be blamed for something.”

Is it too late?

Brinker said even though African-American Heritage Month will be over after Thursday, the Diversity Action Council will still find alternatives to flying the Black Lives Matter Flag.

“Having seen some of the fallout from the Black Lives Matter issue, (the Diversity Action Council) would be a good group of student representatives to bring together and talk about ways that we can increase inclusion, representation, awareness, whether it’s a flag initiative (or) a program initiative,” Brinker said.

Brinker said finding alternatives to flying the flag during African-American Heritage Month was a missed opportunity that, from her perspective, everyone at Eastern and in the Charleston community had some cause in.

“Unfortunately, (flying the Black Lives Matter Flag during African-American Heritage Month) was (the two petitioners’) original recommendation or proposal, but once they came to the realization that that was not going to be supported, whether it be by administration or student government or the campus community as a whole, then I think the opportunity was missed to look at other alternatives or bring other alternatives forward and that, to me, could’ve been (because of) anyone,” she said. “To me, I think that’s where everyone shares that responsibility.”

Brinker said once representatives have been elected to the Diversity Action Council and after they decide on proper alternatives, the Council will remain active.

Glassman said even though he let the Student Senate handle this in its own way and in its own time, it is a little late.

“Well now they’re setting up a committee to know what their alternatives are. Well, it’s a little bit late. The month of February is over. African-American Heritage Month is over,” Glassman said. “Perhaps in their alternatives they’ll have something that we can do, obviously not in February, but some other expression they would like to do to support diversity, to support inclusion, to have a better activity for understanding race and racism and privilege. I don’t know what the alternatives they’re thinking about, but relative to this particular issue, it’s pretty late.”

Analicia Haynes and Logan Raschke can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].